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Clerical collar

Ministry Monday: Thoughts for the ‘Mankini wing of the church’

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Posted by Daniel Newman, 1 Aug 2016

Reflecting on the recent debate in General Synod, Daniel Newman explains why even low church evangelicals should not be too hasty to scrap clerical dress.

It had never occurred to me to preach or conduct Divine Service in a mankini until I read Giles Fraser’s recent comment about the proposed change to canon law allowing congregations to exercise discretion over the wearing of robes for the sake of mission: “A mankini is never acceptable, it is against the doctrines of the Church of England however it is worn.” I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died.

I enjoyed the reports of the debate in the July Session of General Synod, particularly the comment from the Revd Charlie Skrine of St Helen’s Bishopsgate comment about ‘coming from the mankini wing of the church’. Those who know will agree that the reality is far less exotic – a lounge suit and maybe a tie. The apparent triviality of clerical attire , however, belies profound theological issues surrounding ministry.

The law as it stands
Canon B8 prescribes surplice or alb with scarf or stole for the minister at the Holy Communion, Morning and Evening Prayer on Sundays and the Occasional Offices. Canon C27 specifies in a general way that the apparel of bishops, presbyters and deacons shall be suitable to their office and a sign and mark of their holy calling and ministry. The convention, since the late nineteenth century, has been for a man in holy orders to wear a clerical collar - Bertie Wooster refers to his clergymen friends who have taken wear their collars backwards (part of me wonders whether the white cravat of the Regency period is not due for a revival). The 1604 Canons specified cassock and gown as clerical street dress, in common with the Continental Reformed; the English Puritan objection to any distinctive clerical vesture is something of an anomaly amongst the Reformed.

A cultural barrier?
The widespread rejection of robes and collars amongst British conservative evangelicals is largely due to the understandable desire to dress in a way that doesn’t put up a cultural barrier. However, there simply isn’t a neutral form of dress that won’t create a barrier. Any (or indeed, no) clothing has the potential to create a cultural barrier.

Fundamentally, clothing is a form of language. All clothes communicate, whether it is class (the sports jacket, button-up shirt, chinos and Oxfords of the upper-middles), occupation (the uniform of the policeman or nurse, the gown and wig of the barrister or judge, the lounge suit of the venture capitalist), the sense of occasion (the morning suit for the wedding, the polo shirt and shorts for the beach), sub-culture (the checked shirt and skinny jeans of the hipster) and personality. Clothes act as tribal markers.

A minister’s choice of clothes can give people the message that the gospel is not for them or hinder them from approaching him for pastoral care or with questions about God because they suspect the motives of someone dressed like a second-hand car salesman, support a rival sports team, have no affinity for rugby players, or feel alienated from someone of a different class or subculture. There is also the simple practical issue that without a distinctive form of vesture, people simply will not know whom to approach with questions or pastoral needs.

Moreover, casual attire gives the impression, even unconsciously, that we can simply breeze into God’s presence, rather than the fact that God is holy and we can only stand before him because of Christ’s death. Left with general and subjective standards such as ‘seemly’, sinful human beings will push the boundaries of acceptability. One Reformed evangelical church I know made the decision that ministers would stop wearing robes and assurances were given that the standard would remain smart but on one occasion, a man preached barefoot in shorts, causing offence to members of the congregation. I believe it was Charles Read who said in the debate that robes are necessary for clergy with bad dress sense; this is also true for those of us who have excellent dress sense, lest we distract others.

The priesthood of all believers; not the presbyterate of all believers
The other major objection to distinctive clergy dress is the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. I do not need someone special to mediate between me and God. All Christians are priests and can speak the word of Christ to me and pray for me. However, we do not believe in the presbyterate of all believers. Presbyters are God’s gift to the church to be examples of godliness,  teach the truth, refute error, exercise authority, and equip the whole body of Christ for its ministry. The New Testament pattern is that presbyters do not take this office upon themselves but are ordained for the local churches by men with authority (cf Article XXIII).

Ministers do not communicate their own message: they are charged with the task of handing on the deposit of the faith. The sacraments they administer are not local rituals: they are the signs and symbols of incorporation into the universal church. Robes at the time of divine service and a collar as part of street dress signify to the man wearing them, the congregation, and onlookers that he is not acting in a private capacity, but as someone who is exercising an office entrusted to him by the church - as one who has been lawfully called and sent. People understand the concept of a uniform signifying that authority has been given to the wearer. Wearing robes signifies that a minister is doing what the church has done in previous generations. To slightly modify something I once heard, when I wear my surplice, I am 2000 years old. More specifically, to wear a surplice, preaching scarf, academic hood and bands communicates that understanding of ordained ministry recovered at the Reformation as a learned ministry of the word, not of a sacerdotal priesthood offering a propitiatory sacrifice of Christ made locally present in the elements of bread and wine, associated with the stole and chasuble. Although the Canons deny any doctrinal significance to the form of vesture, these historical connotations are inescapable.

In my own experience, wearing a clerical collar has given me the opportunity to answer questions about the faith, show practical help to someone in need, counsel someone who had separated from his wife, and share the gospel. A distinctive mark of being qualified and authorized to exercise the office of a gospel minister has not erected barriers: it has broken them down.

The Revd. Daniel Newman trained at Ridley Hall and is currently serving his curacy at St John's, Weymouth.

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